Shaped by Adversity | Suji
By Jamie Macfarlane | November 11, 2022
How does a career ending injury give birth to a sports tech startup which has just been backed by 7x Grand Slam winner Jamie Murray and Creator Fund? The story starts in Nairn, on the northern tip of Scotland.
Alex Birks was born into a family of five siblings, where competition and sport were baked into him as soon as he could walk. As a teenager he made boxing his focus. By the age of 17, he had picked up a couple of Scottish titles and an even larger number of black eyes. He didn’t want to play rugby because his brothers had already got that covered. And so, looking for more challenges, turned his attention to American Football.
Then one day Alex had a life changing injury on the football field. Regular playing time was already over, when he was badly hit by an opposing player. Initially, Alex played the pain down, took an ibuprofen and tried to pretend as though a good night’s sleep would work wonders. However, the sheer size of the swollen leg said otherwise. He was delivered to the A&E, where it was found that the brute force to a hyperextended knee resulted in a broken tibia, ruptured ACL, and a severely damaged meniscus.
He knew in that moment that his playing career was over. His dreams of sporting success were gone. In an instant, Alex’s entire vision for his future was cancelled and he was all of a sudden facing a completely different outlook.
The perseverance and discipline that Alex learned in his athletic career were crucial now. He put all his efforts into recovery. He got frustrated that it was taking so long. He read everything he could get his hands on, about how to hasten his recovery and ultimately started experimenting with muscle stimulation.
He started off by replicating muscle stimulation effects with random items lying around the house, quickly progressing to more sophisticated equipment. His religious-like physio attendance, his determination to come out stronger and most importantly the added benefit of the muscle stimulation experimentation, allowed him to shave off more than 30% rehab time.
This injury gave him his eureka moment. He was not destined to be an athlete, instead he was going to help athletes recover, rehab and train smarter with tech-enabled innovative equipment.
During the BioCity Accelerator, he started developing his first MVP, a muscle stimulator. Alex pounded down the doors of every sports stadium he could find to try and get early users. Scottish Rugby, GB Hockey, Wimbledon.
Murrayfield Stadium became his new home, where he spent all his time outside university trying to convince the athletes to try out his equipment. He built a strong relationship with Dr Luke Vella (rehab S&C) at Edinburgh Rugby, who was impressed by Alex’s ideas and simultaneously introduced him to the method of Blood Flow Restriction (“BFR”): a training practice that had started to be covered in research only 20 years ago and not yet found any real practical applications. The more he read & heard, the more he realised this might be the answer for both shorter recovery and prevention of muscle-mass loss.
3 weeks in to the 12-week accelerator, he threw everything overboard and built his true MVP: a tech-enabled BFR device that allowed athletes to perform low-load workouts with the same level of muscle stimulation. At that point, he was a frequent (if not daily visitor) to Murrayfield, helping athletes like rising Scottish star Duhan van der Merwe to both recover from leg injury and cement his place on the Scottish wing.
The pandemic didn’t dampen his determination. Alex got Jamie Murray to start using Suji during his pre-Tour prep who was quickly convinced. Simultaneously, he worked day & night to get the first key partnership for Suji over the line, the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association), the governing body of Tennis in Great Britain. It was Alex’s perseverance, paired with the Jamie Murray name, that ultimately cemented this partnership, announced this week. It means that as well as assigning Suji Devices to players on tour, the LTA will also make the device available to all players at its National Tennis Centre.
At just 23 years old, Alex’s device is now used by a range of top-class athletes; some of whom are now ambassadors of Suji: UFC champions, GB Hockey’s strongest midfielder Susannah Townsend and Britain’s number one tennis player Johanna Konta. It soon rolls out to the mass market, allowing anyone to train and rehabilitate at home (at a time when Covid makes it harder to go the gym).
Ask any of the athletes who have been convinced to use Suji by Alex, and the trait they will remark on is his drive. He’s still the boxer who gets back up stronger, every time he’s knocked down…perhaps with the help of a little blood restriction.